Wednesday, August 25, 2010

There is a better world. Well, there must be. (Bubble Bath Babes, Bubble Bobble, Bubble Bobble 2)

Bubble Bobble is one of the most acclaimed games ever for the NES. Bubble Bath Babes is an unlicensed pornographic Tetris clone. Today, in the space between those games, we search for my sexual awakening.

What follows is not the story of my sexual awakening. It's the story of the summer of 1994. I had friends at this particular moment in time. I usually had friends, but this was different somehow. The leader of my social circle was named Chris. Chris had the wild and creative passion of a mild sociopath with poor impulse control. To a well-raised and mostly innocent sixth grader, that translated neatly to a handsome attractiveness. Did I know Chris was a "bad kid?" Of course I did, on some level. But his badness was so innocuous. He was anarchically creative - like the wisecracking heroes I was coming to love in my fiction. He was smart. That was the real thing. He was the first brilliant bad boy I'd ever met. He was the alternate path of my life.

I was 11.

There was a sleepover. Me, Chris, and two others - Keith and Mark. Mark brought two issues of Playboy. It was the first time I'd seen female genitalia and breasts. I remember my surprise at the presence of hair. I'd no real idea what they would look like, I suppose, but a mound of hair wasn't it. The pictures were at once alluring and disturbing, though I cannot say if the allure was a budding sex drive or merely their taboo nature.

The evening devolved to strip poker. This was a bridge too far, though merely the sort that ruined my evening and gave me a lousy time. I excused myself from the tent, and sat in the other tent reading a Doctor Who novel. (My scattershot approach to sexuality becomes clear here. the Doctor Who novels were Virgin's New Adventures series, which awkwardly matured the series with a healthy addiction of sex and graphic violence.) Someone told me that the game was finished, and I could return. I re-entered the tent, and was promptly flashed by the more or less wholly naked assembled players.

If the playing of strip poker was a bridge too far, this was a sort of fundamental breaking point. I fled to the house, likely in tears. Chris's mother was roused, and I demanded to be sent home. She declined, and instead we were brought inside to sleep on the living room floor. I shuffled home the next morning, quite unsure of what I'd learned.

I have never told this story to anyone.

I had no idea Bubble Bath Babes had existed. Not that I can imagine it easing the navigation of this strangeness. It is strange, really, to think of the idea that it could have been any other way. That exposure to sexuality is some sort of universal experience. The idea that some less than family friendly video store might have had Bubble Bath Babes sitting in the back, waiting to expose me to these concepts years earlier. I'd have been good at Bubble Bath Babes. It was just a Tetris clone, after all. There were a million ways to lose that part of my innocence. It didn't have to be utterly bound up in the loss of my friendship with Chris.

That's the other theme. Friendship. Like that of Bub and Bob, heroes of Bubble Bobble. Bubble Bobble is famous for its bad ending.

The bad ending is an unusually sadistic trope of video games. It works like this. First, you beat the game. Then the game tells you that you didn't beat it well enough, and you have to do it again. Perhaps you need to acquire the hidden doodad on level 7. Perhaps you need to beat it without killing the whatzits. Perhaps you just need to beat it again with harder enemies. Or, as is the case in Bubble Bobble, perhaps you need to beat it in two-player mode. With a friend.

I never beat Bubble Bobble. Even with a cheat to get me to the ending boss, I never beat it. Little yet with a friend.

Friendship is a strange requirement for a video game. Almost as strange as sexual awakening is for a sixth grade friendship. Which is to say, one that should have been suspected from the start. Of course the two-player arcade-style co-op game requires two players. Of course the friendship based on fawning admiration for transgressiveness requires the fiction of maturity.

Is it a surprise that there was a sexually explicit video game floating around in the background of my childhood? Of course not. The secret perversions of childhood are no secret. Is it a surprise that sex, inevitably encountered first in awkward solitude, is more fundamentally based on some sort of emotional connection?

Like friendship.

Chris's retaliation went miles beyond an eye for an eye. The ceaseless bullying of seventh grade isn't even what I actually remember. Though they must have taken their toll on me. Before seventh grade I was the textbook definition of good kid. In seventh grade I started to lie my way out of situations. To hide homework I didn't feel like doing. To exploit the gap between what was necessary and what was sufficient. (Albeit poorly, as a 12 year old liar is wont to do)

After seventh grade, Chris was sent away for a year to a school that supposedly could curb his poor behavior. Somewhere in the road from 7th to 8th grade, I discovered girls in a way that didn't involve fold-out glossy inserts. My first girlfriend was in 8th grade. It lasted all of a week. She dumped me via a note in my locker. It wasn't classy.

In 9th grade, Chris came back, I believe thrown out of his reform school. I had assumed a year of separation would cool tempers. I was very much wrong. Internet harassment. Social harassment. Chris's transgressive genius was, for some reason, utterly fixed on hurting me, and he was good at it. Masterful at dancing in the spaces between what would affect me and what was against the rules.

In the end, the same poor impulse control I'd idolized years before saved me. He wasn't clever enough not to carve a death threat into a desk. The school, which had by then started looking for an excuse, cracked down.

Life went on. First serious relationship in 10th grade. Things progressed from there. Sexual awakening is not like an alarm clock, for the most part. And Chris kept his distance, got suspended a few times, and then I have no idea. GED? Probably.

I don't feel guilty. Not only because I don't think I did the wrong thing at the sleepover. Not only because it is clear in hindsight that Chris was not a safe friend. There's no thing I regret in any of this. It worked out fine.

It's not guilt. Not even regret. It's the secret, fervent hope that transgression serves a purpose. The hope that something about Chris in sixth grade was as good as I imagined. That there was ever a friendship to build there.

I didn't know there was a Bubble Bobble 2. Actually, that's not quite true. I knew about a game called Rainbow Islands, which was a sequel to Bubble Bobble that's almost but not entirely unlike Bubble Bobble. But in 1993, apparently, a straight sequel to Bubble Bobble came out, with the same mechanics. I didn't know. I was too busy selling off my Nintendo games for... I actually have no idea. It was the start of my own video game crash, where I abandoned the consoles for the PC for several years. It was sixth grade, and I was starting to befriend a strange but intriguing kid named Chris. I had no time for a sequel to a childhood parable about friendship.

Everything I don't know, I didn't learn from video games.


  1. Good post. I admire your sharing of this.

  2. For some reason, Not Reading these has become somewhat less important.

  3. Bubble Bobble was one of my favorite childhood nintendo games.
    Do you have a NES that still works? I thought mine did, but after months of storage, I can't seem to get it to work :(

  4. I can't remmeber how far into bubble bobble you need to get, but at some level on the original cart there was a level where the background spelled drunk. I remember playing with a friend as a kid to this level.

  5. Bubble Bobble 2 is fantastically rare. You probably wouldn't've been able to play it even if you knew about it when it released.

  6. I had a similar experience with a 'best friend' who also was a troublemaker and was sent away for a year, though that year would be Grade 4. Reading this was so very familiar to me, as I could almost mirror my experiences with yours, even those that dealt with girls and sexuality.

    Thank you for posting this.